There aren’t many musicals that have taken over two thousand years to write and can boast the creative talents of Aristophanes, Stephen Sondheim, Burt Shevelove and Nathan Lane, but The Frogs which is having a run at the Jermyn Street Theatre is just such a show.
The time is the present, the place is Ancient Greece and Dionysos (Michael Matus) is in despair about the state of the world. Being the God of Theatre he thinks the best idea is for him and his slave Xanthias (George Rae) to head to Hades and bring George Bernard Shaw (Martin Dickenson) back to the earth to write a play that will speak to the people of the earth and help society with their problems. Whilst reluctant – he really doesn’t like travelling – Xanthias goes with his master, well he is a slave so his options are limited. On the way, the two travellers pop in to get some advice from Dionysos’ half brother, Herakles (Chris McGuigan) on how to get to Hades. Herakles advises his half brother to pretend to be him so he can talk his way into Hades – as the rather effete Dionysos would not do well in the macho world of hell. Dionysos and Xanthias head to the River Styx where they meet the ferryman, Charon (Jonathan Wadley). As they travel, Dionysos tells his companions about his dead wife Ariadne (Bernadette Bangura) and her crown of stars. When the travellers make it to Hades, they meet some of its inhabitants, including a cult of Dionysion worshippers, Charisma,the Keeper of Keys to the palace, Aekos, Virilla The Amazon (Li-Tong Hsu), George Bernard Shaw and his great literary rival, William Shakespeare (Nigel Pilkington), and then finally, the Ruler of the Underworld, Pluto Emma Ralston) who sheds new light on life in Hell for Xanthias and Dionysos. With only twenty-four hours available to him, can Dionysos fulfill his plan and save the world from itself by the use of a new play?
The Frogs is a bit of an odd musical in many respects. Originally written by Aristophanes, it has been, as the programme says, “freely adapted” by Burt Shevelove and “even more freely adapted” by Nathan Lane and is a bit of a mish-mash of ideas. The music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim are themselves unusual and at times, it feels as the great Mr S was testing out some tunes in this production before expanding them and using them in other shows. For all this though the show itself is actually quite endearing and interesting to watch. The idea that a single play could change the world may sound a bit naive but, let’s face it if you are the God of theatre and wine, then your choices are rather limited. The story is surprisingly relevant for the current political climate and the script contained some nice little drop-ins of current phrases which fitted perfectly with the overall tone and theme of The Frogs. There were elements of the story I really enjoyed, such as Pluto’s mind-blowing description of life – or I suppose death – in Hades which I have to say makes it a far more attractive final destination than the Bible ever did. I also enjoyed the verbal duel between Shaw and Shakespeare. However, there were other elements, such as the appearance of The Frogs in the title which really didn’t work for me or actually seem to have any real relevance to the story as a whole – in fact I never really understood why frogs were perceived so negatively throughout the narrative. If I’m honest, I would have cut the second act down a bit and maybe expanded the duel as, at times it felt like there were elements being introduced and dismissed without really being needed.
Designer Gregor Donnelly has created a rather minimalist set – a sort of mini climbing frame around the edges of the stage area – along with the costumes – everyone in black with just some hints of colour to highlight particular characters – all combined to give the audience the chance to exercise their imaginations. Given the lack of scenery and costume then full credit to the actors for managing to make their various roles pretty clear to those of us watching. Michael Matus and George Rae made a strong double act throughout but especially in the opening number and the scenes where they were alternately pretending to be Herakles. The rest of the cast were really good and it was shame that the writing only gave us a taste of what some of the characters were like.
Overall, I did enjoy The Frogs. I have listened to the original cast recording again today and whilst it’s not Sondheim at his inimitable best, I cannot fault the music. The story flows well on the whole and this revival is really charming. It works very well in the intimate space of the Jermyn Street Theatre where the cat and audience can easily share the experience of the story. Not my favourite show of the year, but well worth a trip.
Review by Terry Eastham
The latest 2004 Broadway version of the rarely performed Stephen Sondheim musical THE FROGS
is a hilarious send up of Greek comedy and satire with a book revised and expanded by Nathan Lane
and includes seven new Sondheim songs.
House on the Hill Productions
in Association with
Jermyn Street Theatre
The UK Premiere
A comedy written in 405 by ARISTOPHANES
Freely adapted for today by BURT SHEVELOVE
And even more freely adapted by NATHAN LANE
Music and lyrics by STEPHEN SONDHEIM
Original orchestration by Jonathan Tunick
Director: Grace Wessels
Musical Director: Tim Sutton
Designer: Gregor Donnelly
Movement: Tim McArthur
featuring Michael Matus as Dionysos & George Rae as Xanthias